COLUMBIA — With the help of two key witnesses' testimony, Ryan Ferguson was convicted in December 2005 of aiding the 2001 robbery and murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
Since then, however, the same witnesses who helped persuade a jury to convict Ferguson have admitted to authorities that they lied while on the stand.
The witnesses' false testimony and an allegedly unconstitutional jury selection were among the major components in a habeas corpus petition delivered by Ferguson's father, Bill, to the Cole County Circuit Court on Monday morning.
A habeas corpus petition can be used to bring a convicted person back for another trial or to free someone from prison. The petition needs to show that the court made a legal or factual error.
Charles Erickson, who admitted to the murder and named Ferguson as an accomplice in 2004, and Jerry Trump, who was a janitor at the Tribune, were two of the three eyewitnesses present on Nov. 1, 2001.
After the police received a tip from a source who claimed to have heard Erickson talk about the killing at a party, Erickson told police in 2004 that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt. At that point, Erickson said he didn't remember the pair committing the crime until he read news stories and dreamed of the incident.
Erickson said in his original videotaped statement that Ferguson suggested they rob someone. He said they decided on Heitholt, and Erickson proceeded to hit Heitholt with a tire tool and Ferguson used Heitholt's belt to strangle him.
Erickson's testimony during Ferguson's trial was the result of a plea agreement. Erickson agreed to tell the truth on the stand and plead guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in return for a reduced sentenced of 25 years in prison.
Ferguson, who maintains he had nothing to do with the crime, was found guilty of the same charges and sentenced to 40 years in the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
Then, in February 2010, Erickson gave another video statement. This time, he said he acted alone and that most of the details he provided in his first video statement were lies.
Trump, another eyewitness in Ferguson's trial, said he came out of the Tribune building and saw two individuals near Heitholt's body. At the time, he said he couldn't identify the two people.
When news stories ran about Erickson's confession in 2004, Trump, who was imprisoned for a sex offense, said his wife sent him a newspaper with the story, which included Ferguson's and Erickson's pictures.
It was at that point, he said in court, that he realized they were the same people he saw the night Heitholt died.
But in October, Trump submitted an affidavit and, like Erickson, said he lied during the trial. Trump said that, contrary to his testimony, he never received a newspaper story about the case while he was in prison. He said in the latest affidavit that he never saw photos of Erickson or Ferguson until the prosecuting attorney, Kevin Crane, showed him photos during a meeting in December 2004.
The habeas corpus petition written by Ferguson's attorney Kathleen Zellner states, "Crane advised Trump that 'it would be helpful to (Crane)' if Trump would identify Ryan as being in the parking lot the night of the murder."
The petition also advises that Ferguson be set free based on an unconstitutional jury selection. Because of media attention to the case, the jury for Ferguson's trial was selected from Lincoln County instead of from Boone. At the time, Lincoln County practiced an "opt-out" option for people selected for jury duty. Individuals could pay $50 and perform community service instead of sitting through jury selection. After Ferguson's conviction, the process was deemed unlawful.
Now that the habeas corpus petition has been filed, a judge will be assigned to review the case and rule whether the false testimony, new evidence and allegedly unlawful jury selection resulted in an unfair trial. The attorney general will then have to file a response.
After the petition and the attorney general's response are reviewed, a judge will assign a hearing date. Zellner said she expects a hearing sometime this summer so the prosecution will have time to file its response.
If the assigned judge deems the trial fair, the habeas corpus appeal won't move further. If it's found unfair, there are several directions the case could go:
- The judge could free Ferguson from prison.
- The judge could grant a new trial.
If a new trial is granted, the attorney general has a choice to pursue or drop the case.